America's anemic plastics recycling rate has further deteriorated.
But one industry supporter is pointing to changes he believes will ultimately boost those numbers.
New statistics from the US Environmental Protection Agency show that the amount of plastics recycled fell by nearly 6% in tonnage from 2015 to 2017.
Word of the decrease, from 9.1% of the total plastic generated in 2015 to 8.4% in 2017, comes as there is an ever-increasing focus and discussion on material and the role it should play in society.
As debate rages, there are market conditions that impact the numbers.
China's National Sword initiative essentially closed that country's borders to all types of scrap imports as officials looked to promote domestic recycling and crack down on sometimes questionable recycling practices.
With this key outlet for recycled plastics essentially eliminated, exporters from the United States and other countries have had to adapt to new market conditions. China was once very forgiving regarding the quality of materials it took in for recycling. But an earlier effort by China to clean up those recycling streams dubbed Green Fence and the subsequent National Sword program have forced recyclers to rethink their approach or go out of business.
A total of 34.5 million tonnes of plastics were generated in 2015, with 3.14 million tonnes recycled, according to EPA. That translates to a 9.1% recycling rate. Another 5.35 tonnes, or 15.5%, were burned for energy and 26 million tonnes, or 75.4%, were landfilled.
Plastics critics have long cited the 9.1% recycling rate, and industry supporters have said the number shows there's room for improvement and growth.
The US generated 35.37 million tonnes of virgin plastics in 2017, according to the EPA report. But while overall plastics production increased, the recycling total decreased to 2.96 million tonnes, or 8.4% of the total.
Statistics can sometimes be confusing, but the decrease in the recycling rate from 9.1% to 8.4% of the total plastic generated represents a drop of 7.7%. And when comparing the actual tonnage of plastic that was recycled in 2015 and 2017, the decrease was 5.7%, or 180,000 tonnes.
Incineration, meanwhile, increased slightly to 5.59 million tonnes, or 15.8% of the total. And landfilling totaled 26.82 million tonnes, or 75.8%, in 2017, EPA reported.
"We're not surprised with the recent decline given the widespread impacts of China's National Sword policy, which has curtailed Asian markets for US recyclers. At the same time, we're heartened that one consequence of China's policy has been a wave of new announcements and investments in domestic recycling here in the United States," said Steve Russell, vice president of the plastics division of the American Chemistry Council.
While new statistics show that there has been a decrease in plastics recycling between 2015 and 2017, the numbers just released do lag current market conditions. That's just the nature of these types of reports.
Russell indicated that the landscape is changing when it comes to recycled plastics.
"Data show that domestic markets for recycled plastics are increasing, and we expect this trend to accelerate," he said.
Resin manufacturers and brand owners are placing more emphasis on including recycled content in their products and packaging as public awareness on the use of plastics increases.